Commentary / Japan

Japan's quiet deterrence

by Yoichi Funabashi

In its refusal to acknowledge China’s territorial rights to the artificial islands it has constructed in the South China Sea, the United States sent a destroyer from the 7th Fleet within 12 nautical miles of the islands in order to conduct a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in late October. This strategy of sending U.S. warships and aircraft to the area is intended to deter China from “militarizing” the South China Sea.

It is too soon to tell whether this will actually serve as a deterrent. Indeed, it is possible that China — which has so far responded to the operation with protests and warnings — will interpret these actions as a provocation by the U.S., and use them as a pretext for accelerating the “militarization” of the area through the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) or other measures. Should this occur, the failed attempt at deterrence could actually trap the U.S. and China in a “security dilemma” in which both countries continue to build up their military preparedness.

Earlier, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking at a plenary session of the Lower House, discussed the purpose of Japan’s new security-related legislation in the following terms: “By letting the world know that the Japan-U.S. alliance will come into force should Japan come under threat, we improve our ability to pre-empt conflicts — that is, we strengthen our deterrent capabilities. This makes it all the more unlikely that Japan will come under attack.” While he did not mention a specific country by name, it is abundantly clear that Abe was referring to China.

Ultimately, the credibility and deterrent power of an alliance depends on whether the countries in question are truly prepared to risk lives in defense of their ally during a crisis. Thus, from the perspective of maintaining and improving the deterrent power of an alliance, both sides should come as close as possible to “mutuality” in their ability to meet their obligations to defend the other.

In this sense, the recently enacted security legislation, which enables Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense, may serve to strengthen the deterrent power of the Japan-U.S. alliance. This is because both alliance partners must continually demonstrate their intention and ability to repel any threat in order to manifest true deterrent capabilities.

On the other hand, we must consider the case of a country like Japan, which is not fully trusted by its neighbors due to the negative legacies of history. In this case, “lack of mutuality” — that is, Japan’s reliance on the U.S. — has undeniably given the neighboring countries a certain sense of security. This was demonstrated at the time of the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China, when President Richard Nixon attempted to explain the U.S.-Japan alliance to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai as a “cap in the bottle.”

Yet it is equally true that as the U.S. presence in Asia declines and China’s great power offensive grows more readily apparent, other Asian countries have begun asking Japan to play a greater security role in the region, and strengthen its alliance with the U.S. Japan’s response to such requests could strengthen its ability to deter China.

It will nevertheless prove difficult to formulate a successful deterrence policy toward China. In cyberspace, where a de facto war is already underway, the aggressors are anonymous. It is difficult to deter an unidentifiable opponent. Moreover, to deploy a deterrent force effectively, one must rely not only upon military strength — other forms of power must also be mobilized. However, it would be extremely difficult to circumscribe economic activity or impose direct sanctions against China. We thus run the risk of allowing an over-reliance on military force to become the mainspring of deterrence.

China’s inherently different strategic culture makes it all the more difficult to formulate a sustainable form of deterrence. Kurt Campbell, who formerly served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said to me as follows: “The U.S. believes in the importance of transparency, and so we give the Chinese tours of our military facilities. But the Chinese interpret this as an attempt to show off our superior capabilities in order to threaten them and strengthen deterrence. The Chinese employ ambiguity, not transparency — they use uncertainty to make their opponents uneasy. That’s what deterrence means to the Chinese.”

In the game of deterrence, the Chinese make no effort to conceal the fact that they are employing asymmetry and uncertainty as weapons of guerrilla warfare.

In the formation of deterrence, neither side can seek absolute security. Rather, both sides must remain somewhat vulnerable. Furthermore, neither side wins in the game of deterrence. Deterrence is a game based on expectations and conjecture: It would be impossible to prove that such techniques actually averted a specific event.

A mixture of sentiments now emanate from China: these include concern for China as a great power, a warped pride at having endured a “century of humiliation,” the patriotic and blameless nationalism required to sustain one-party rule, and an intense desire to change the status quo of “China as the underdog.” Deterrence must thus be employed quietly, accompanied by precise and sincere communications at the top levels of government.

Even if the recent passage of a U.S. destroyer through the 12-mile zone around China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea has not triggered a strong action from China, we should not interpret this as a victory. Any attempt to declare victory would prompt countermeasures from China and lead to a failure of deterrence.

In the game of deterrence with China, perhaps the greatest threat is posed by the visions harbored by both sides regarding the “post-deterrence” world order. The U.S. game of Cold War deterrence ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union — a point on which Xi Jinping and the Communist Party leadership are extremely sensitive. In fact, the ultimate question facing the U.S. and Japan in their strategic deterrence of China is this: Can they successfully impart a vision for the future world order that doesn’t involve a regime collapse in China?

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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